By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - A one-time carnival worker pleaded guilty on Tuesday and was sentenced to 48 years in prison for the 1975 kidnapping and murders of two young Maryland sisters, resolving one of the most publicized crimes in the state's history.
Lloyd Lee Welch Jr., 60, was sentenced in Bedford County, Virginia, where police believe he disposed of the remains of sisters Katherine and Sheila Lyon.
Welch was accused of snatching Katherine, 10, and Sheila, 12, from a Wheaton, Maryland, mall they visited in March 1975 to see Easter decorations. The disappearance of the girls, daughters of a local radio personality, triggered what was then one of the biggest police investigations ever in the Washington region.
The bodies have never been found. Police have said they think the sisters' remains may have been burned and then disposed of in central Virginia, where Welch has relatives.
“This is a good day for the cause of justice. We’ve closed the chapter on Lloyd Welch,” county prosecutor Wes Nance said at a news conference.
Welch, a former carnival worker and drifter, has been in a Delaware prison since 1997 on an unrelated child sex charge. The plea agreement on Tuesday calls for him to serve his 48-year term in a Virginia prison after completing the Delaware sentence.
The Virginia prison term for two counts of first-degree murder “for all intents and purposes will be a life sentence,” Nance said.
Montgomery County, Maryland, detectives reopened the nearly four-decade-old cold case in 2013. Welch was charged in 2015.
Nance said Welch had not admitted to participating in the actual murder of the girls. Welch also at various times has identified different people as being co-conspirators in the crime, he said.
The death penalty was taken off the table in consultation with the Lyon family and law enforcement authorities, Nance said.
(Reporting by Gary Robertson; Editing by Ian Simpson and Jonathan Oatis)